Oil industry seeks fast offshore study

By Monica Hatcher, Houston Chronicle

Apr. 21–Energy industry representatives on Tuesday asked the government agency responsible for leasing offshore lands for drilling to expedite and even expand an environmental impact study of the effects of seismic surveying off the Atlantic coast.

That work will allow geological data to be collected in an area off limits to exploration and drilling for more than two decades.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service on Tuesday hosted in Houston the first of 13 meetings to gather public comments for a so-called programmatic environmental impact statement that will look at the potential harm caused by seismic work to marine life and ocean habitats, as well as alternatives and mitigation measures.

The meetings — 12 others are scheduled in six cities on the East Coast this month — come only weeks after President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to lift an offshore drilling ban for much of the Eastern Seaboard and other areas.

When the study is done, scientists should be able to begin collecting and analyzing geologic data so that the government can proceed with lease sales and drilling for oil and natural gas, as well as a host of other activities, from siting wind turbines to excavating sand and gravel.

The meeting drew about 40 people largely from the industry to the Houston Airport Marriott. Several spoke publicly. They expressed support for the agency but repeatedly urged it to focus on documented instances and scientific reports of the environmental impact of seismic work, rather than speculation, when drafting the study.

The seismic industry maintains marine mammals are not harmed by surveying, which involves emitting loud blasts of compressed air into the water to capture acoustic images reflected off the seabed. It also says it follows strict federal rules to ensure mammals are a safe distance away when seismic work is being done.

Jennifer Smith, the only environmental activist to speak Tuesday, asked the MMS all the same to carefully consider the potential harm to whales and sea turtles.

Some of the nation’s biggest oil and services companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Halliburton, pressed MMS to quickly proceed with the study, which MMS said should be done by 2012.

Estimates by the Department of the Interior and others regarding the potential of areas of the Outer Continental Shelf “are just that — estimates,” said Terry Rooney, a senior environmental adviser with BP. “The fact is, we will not know how much is there until we explore.”

Seismic activity has not taken place in the Mid- and South-Atlantic region, which runs about 250 miles offshore from Delaware to the middle part of Florida, since the early 1980s. Since then, new technology has vastly improved the ability of geologists to winnow the most prospective areas from the ocean floor, said Walt Rosenbusch, a member of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors.

He and Andy Radford, a policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, asked the MMS to consider broadening the scope of the environmental study to include the North Atlantic region, which runs from Delaware northward.

“Exploration and production companies need geophysical data that they can use to tie paths to current production data from offshore Nova Scotia to the U.S. Atlantic basins,” Rosenbusch said, pointing out that adding the area to the study would require minimal additional cost and time.

But Bruce Mitchell, a manager with Shell’s North Atlantic exploration group, said his company wanted timely lease sales to proceed as scheduled.

“We don’t want to see a delay necessarily, waiting for all of the data that possibly could be acquired in the area prior to the sale occurring. The two things can occur to some extent in parallel.”



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